Every merit badge tells a story.
Examine each 1.5-inch circle, and you’ll find the tale of a Scout who discovered a new passion, conquered a fear or created something incredible.
John Ucha can tell 139 such stories. And in his quest to earn every available Scouts BSA merit badge, his family has written quite a story, too.
You see, no Scout really earns a merit badge alone. Sure, they have to complete every requirement themselves. But they get plenty of help in the form of merit badge counselors who guide their journey, troopmates who encourage and challenge them, and moms or dads or guardians who serve as way more than chauffeurs.
For a prime example of this support system, consider John, a member of Troop 380 of Tinley Park, Ill., part of the BSA’s Pathway to Adventure Council.
“We live in a suburb of Chicago, and my quest to earn every badge sometimes took us to nearby states like Indiana and Wisconsin — but also further away to West Virginia [Whitewater merit badge] and Arizona [Exploration merit badge],” John says. “It’s been quite an adventure.”
His goal, his family’s goal
Partly out of necessity and partly out of familial bonds, John’s goal to earn every merit badge became his family’s goal. Though John gets to wear the sash, his mom (Rose), dad (Joe) and older sister (Julie) deserve some type of award, too.
“He initially had a goal of earning 100 badges, but once he did, he decided to keep going,” Rose says. “It became a bit of a family endeavor — with Mom and Dad doing a lot of driving, and his older sister learning some of the skills he was learning, like snow skiing, scuba and pottery.”
(Julie, unfortunately, already had turned 18 by the time the BSA opened all of its programs to young women. Because if given the option, she absolutely would’ve been a Scouts BSA member!)
For many Scouts, the merit badge experience just clicks. They love the thrill of the unknown. The chance to sharpen an existing skill or learn something new. The we-don’t-learn-this-in-school moments only found in Scouting.
But here’s where I have to tell you that it wasn’t always easy. You don’t get to 139 merit badges without a few bumps in the road.
John earned merit badges in nine different states: Arizona, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, Missouri, Ohio, West Virginia and Wisconsin. That meant a lot of time in the family car.
For the Scuba merit badge, they found a counselor based in Indiana who also owned a dive shop. The only problem: It was about an hour’s drive from their house. But Mom and Dad said yes, even signing Julie up for the training, too.
Two times a week for eight weeks, Rose and Joe drove their kids to the lessons.
“The training classes for Scuba included people who weren’t Scouts,” Rose says. “It was somewhat intimidating for him because one of the participants was training to be a Navy Seal.”
Living near Chicago, weather was an ongoing worry as well. That limited the window for John to work on merit badges like Swimming, Motorboating, Canoeing, Golf, Gardening and Cycling.
And then there’s all those leftover snowmen.
For the American Business merit badge, John made Christmas decorations to sell at craft shows. He made hundreds of snowmen out of wooden spoons. Sales were, let’s just say, less than stellar.
“We still have storage tubs of snowmen that we’re trying to figure out how to give away,” John says.
But the good moments outnumbered the rough times — and by a wide margin.
John says his most cherished merit badge was the first one he ever earned: Archery. At his first summer camp, he was really struggling to get an arrow anywhere near the target.
The instructor calmly explained how to control his breathing and focus on the target, and his dad and fellow Scouts cheered him on. It worked.
- Plumbing merit badge: John and some fellow Scouts earned it in Cleveland at a facility that trains professional plumbers. The site includes a training house with clear pipes. “The boys could follow a pretend ‘poop’ through the pipes,” Rose says. “Sounds odd but was very neat.”
- Law merit badge: John earned it at the courthouse in Lake County, Ill., where he and his fellow Scouts got to serve as a mock jury.
- Geocaching merit badge: John still gets notifications that people have found his cache — four years after he placed it.
- Collections merit badge: While earning this one at a merit badge event in Indianapolis, John got to visit Gen Con — the largest tabletop-game convention in North America.
What the family learned
Joe, John’s dad, discovered the thrill of finding a hobby you can share with your child.
“It’s gratifying to share information on a passion like coin collecting,” Rose says, “which my husband has been doing since he was a young boy.”
Rose, John’s mom, learned just how far she’ll go to join the activities that interest her children.
“I tried snow skiing for the first time in my life, which was a complete bust,” she says. “I ended up going down the mountain on my rear end!”
Julie, John’s older sister, developed a greater appreciation for the time and effort required to earn merit badges.
“She did find some things she really enjoys, like golf and snow skiing,” Rose says. “Each winter, we take a skiing trip with other current and former Scout families.”
John earned his 139th merit badge on July 20. As he completed the 50-mile ride for the Cycling merit badge, he was greeted by current and former members of his troop.
Everyone lined up to congratulate him on reaching his goal.
Though John got the kudos — and deservedly so — let’s start another cheer for his family. Because families make a great Scouting experience even better.
“John’s journey was a journey for us all and became part of our lifestyle,” Rose says. “I find it personally somewhat bittersweet that he’s now earned them all. It’s given each one of us some great stories and memories.”
There are 137 currently available merit badges, so how did John earn 139?
His count includes the Computers merit badge (discontinued in 2014 and replaced by Digital Technology) and the Cinematography merit badge (which became Moviemaking in 2013).
Share your story
Moms, dads, guardians and siblings: How did your Scout’s merit badge experience change you in unexpected ways? Share your story in the comments.